There’s a fascinating interactive map of the world’s undersea communications cables here. It’s also a pretty good guesstimation guide as to where there are, or are likely to be, NSA or subordinate agencies’ (and other non-affiliated intelligence services’) field stations that funnel the data flowing through such cables through computer systems that analyse traffic and content data.
The BBC reports that the UK Home Office has been forced by the European Union to accept input from civil and digital rights groups over the revision of its Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) – I’ve posted lots on RIPA here in the past, so it’s worth doing a search of this site for some of the backstory.
The u-turn was apparently sparked by the EU’s report on the Phorm debacle (see also here) which, amongst other things concluded that the UK was in breach of the Privacy Directive for having no adequate complaints procedure or systems of legal redress for those who believe they have been subject to illicit surveillance. Amongst the little nuggets in this story is the fact that since its creation in 1986, the Interception Commissioner has upheld four complaints. Yes, four. 4.
The consultation has also been extended to the 17th of December, so get writing if you haven’t already made your views known. You can find the consultation document here (pdf).
One of the many promises made by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was that it would “end the storage of internet and e-mail records without good reason.” The obvious flaw in this promise is that all the protection provided was only good so long as the government was unable to invent a ‘good reason.’
Now it appears according to The Guardian newspaper, that such a ‘good reason’ has been defined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, to keep all web site visits, e-mail and phone calls made in the UK. And it is an old reason: basically, everything should be kept in case the police or intelligence services might find it useful in the prevention of a ‘terror-related crime’. Note: not actually terrorism, but terror-related, which is rather more vague and not so clearly defined in law, even given that ‘terrorism’ is already very broadly defined in the relevant laws.
This is pretty much exactly what the last Labour government were planning to do anyway with the proposed Communications Bill. Oh, and dont’t forget that the cost of this has been estimated at around 2Bn GBP ($3.5Bn) in a country that just announced ‘unavoidable’ welfare cuts of 7Bn GBP… that’s the reality of the ‘age of austerity’ for you’. It shows what David Gill argued in his book Policing Politics (1994) that the intelligence service constitute a ‘secret state’ that persists beyond the superficial front of the government of the day.
There’s been a lot of controversy over this summer about the threats made to several large western mobile technology providers mainly by Asian and Middle-Eastern governments to ban their products and services unless they made it easier for their internal intelligence services and political police to access the accounts of users. The arguments actually started way back in 2008 in India, when the country’s Home Ministry demanded access to all communications made through Research in Motion’s (RIM) famous Blackberry smartphone, which was starting to spread rapidly in the country’s business community. Not much came of this beyond RIM agreeing in principle to the demand. Then over this summer, the issue flared up again, both in India and most strongly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. RIM’s data servers were located outside the countries and the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) said that RIM was providing an illegal service which was “causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions”. Both countries have notorious internal police and employ torture against political opponents.RIM initially defended its encrypted services and its commitment to the privacy of its users in a full statement issued at the beginning of August. However, they soon caved in when they realised that this could cause a cascade of bans across the Middle-East, India and beyond and promised to place a data server in both nations, and now India is once again increasing the pressure on RIM to do the same for its internal security services. So instead of a cascade of bans, we now have a massive increase in corporate-facilitated state surveillance. It’s Google and China all over again, but RIM put up even less of a fight.
However, a lot of people in these increasingly intrusive and often authoritarian regimes are not happy with the new accord between states and technology-providers, and this may yet prove more powerful than what states want. In Iran, Isa Saharkhiz, a leading dissident journalist and member of the anti-government Green Movement is suing another manufacturer, Nokia Siemens Networks, in a US court for providing the Iranian regime with the means to monitor its mobile networks. NSN have washed their hand of this, saying it isn’t their fault what the Iranian government does with the technology, and insist that they have to provide “a lawful interception capability”, comparing this to the United States and Europe, and claiming that standardisation of their devices means that “it is unrealistic to demand… that wireless communications systems based on global technology standards be sold without that capability.”
There is an interesting point buried in all of this, which is that the same backdoors built into western communications systems (and long before 9/11 came along too) are now being exploited by countries with even fewer scruples about using this information to unjustly imprison and torture political opponents. But the companies concerned still have moral choices to make, they have Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which is not simply a superficial agreement with anyone who shouts ‘security’ but a duty to their customers and to the human community. Whatever they say, they are making a conscious choice to make it easier for violent and oppressive regimes to operate. This cannot be shrugged off by blaming it on ‘standards’ (especially in an era of the supposed personal service and ‘mass customization’ of which the very same companies boast), and if they are going to claim adherence to ‘standards’, what about those most important standards of all, as stated clearly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12 of which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence,” and in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
A US Federal Court judge has ruled that the National Security Agency’s secret domestic wiretapping program of internal terrorist suspects, was illegal according to the New York Times. The activity violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which was put into place after the various inquiries into the activities of the FBI and NSA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I’ve said before, that’s hardly a surprise and don’t think this has got a whole lot to do with George W. Bush in particular. Intelligence services might claim to operate under laws but in reality their priorities are not bound by them.But there’s a kind of cycle of collective amnesia that goes on with these inquiries and rulings. This time, the NSA was basically doing almost exactly the same thing as in the earlier period. Some minor superficial changes will occur. People will forget about it. The NSA will carry on. Then in 20 years time, there will be something else that will reveal again the same kinds of activities. Cue collective shock again. And so on. It would take a lot more continual public oversight and openness for them to be held properly to account, and if they were, they’d be very different entities. But that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be held to account: the fact that most democratic nations have what amounts to a secret state within the state that may have very different priorities than the official government or the people should be profoundly worrying. Yet it seems to be such an enormous breach of the democratic ideal that it goes largely unnoticed.